Marcus Watson of Ground Control explains how we must accelerate the pace of change to create a sustainable world.
Since I handed over the role of Ground Control’s managing director to Jason Knights in January 2021, I have been afforded the luxury of reflecting about the incredibly important roles we and governments have to play in the green recovery as we head towards an environmentally sustainable future.
To protect and indeed enrich our way of life in harmony with nature and to safeguard the all-important biodiversity of the world we inhabit, we must first and foremost solve the most important problem facing us today: climate change.
A controversial study suggests we may have already passed the point of no return and that the world may be on a runaway train that will ultimately lead to the rapid heating of the planet.1,2 It suggests increased temperatures are thawing the permafrost which will release mass amounts of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. In parallel, as ice caps melt, bright white ice is replaced with darker bodies of water and rock which absorb heat from the sun’s rays rather than reflect it. If we believe this study, both these effects amongst others will cause a further increase in temperatures even if we stop greenhouse gas emission altogether now.
This doomsday scenario is dangerous as it may encourage some to think “Why bother? What’s the point?”. Moreover, it is at odds with studies more widely accepted by the scientific community, e.g. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose models suggest that if greenhouse gas emission were to stop immediately, there would be very little further increases in temperatures.1,2 Looking at the options available to solve this global problem, there is perhaps reason to be optimistic with many more technologies available to us than there were 20 years ago. For example, renewables, biomass and nuclear accounted for a record 62.1% of the UK’s electricity generation in Q1 of 2020 and the trend of replacing fossil fuels with renewables is set to continue at pace.3,4
That said, scientific evidence suggests that we are in an exponential climate crisis. Whether you look at CO2 emissions or global average temperature differences since over many years, the exponential nature of the trends is clear.5,6
Most learned studies therefore agree that time is not on our side and that the tipping point may be as close to 2026 or, if significant action is taken now, 2042. Furthermore, there is a view that reducing global carbon emissions to zero by 2050 is just the start of our actions to deal with climate change.
COVID-19 has taught us two things in the past year. Firstly, when faced with an exponential crisis, we cannot afford any delay. Every day makes a disproportional difference. For example, enacting the UK lockdown only one week earlier in March 2020 would have prevented 20,000 UK deaths, roughly 50% of the total deaths experienced in the first wave of infections.7 What this means is that we are not just fighting against climate change; we are fighting against time.
Secondly, when faced with an exponential crisis, governments can make a very significant and positive impact. For instance, the development of several highly effective vaccines within a year versus the usual 10 years is nothing short of remarkable and, crucially, was enabled by bold moves by various governments that funded research, clinical trials and manufacturing capacity. What this means is that governments can helpfully focus our combined endeavours to defeat a common foe, or at least adapt to live alongside it.
And so this brings me to the nub of this article. Namely that governments need to show strong leadership and create a simple and clear legislative framework that encourages positive behaviours and discourages harmful actions in our combined fight against climate change; a set of “carrot and stick” incentives that helps individuals, organisations and businesses transition to a net-zero economy at pace.
As someone who values the free market economy, this suggestion is counter-intuitive but it has benefits such as accelerating the pace of change and, importantly, levelling the competitive playing field as everyone has to play under the same rules. This would ensure there is no discrimination against early adopters and, equally importantly, it means that no one gets left behind.
To achieve this, I am advocating that our government should:
- Establish a Climate & Ecological Emergency Executive (CEEE) at national level, with powers equivalent of the Health & Safety Executive, responsible for the enforcement of the legal obligations to eliminate carbon emissions.8
- Provide meaningful incentives and support to help individuals and organisations adapt to the change and transition to net-zero.
- Apply effective carbon taxes on all goods and services, irrespective of their country of origin, to stimulate alternatives to carbon and create a level playing field for goods and services produced at home as well as those that are imported.
- Move at increasing pace. With the UK holding the Presidency for COP26 in 2021, this puts the UK in the unique position to demonstrate bold leadership on a global stage.
Our government can lead the way and accelerate the pace of change whilst mitigating the fear of losing out to competitors at home and abroad. We can rebuild better; we have the technology. And with clear positive leadership, we will possess the clarity and courage to do so.
1 “ Is the climate crisis pushing the world towards a ‘point of no return’?”, Daisy Dunne, The Independent, 12 Nov 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/ climate-change/news/climate-change-crisis-tipping-point-world-warm-b1721822.html
2 “ Are We Really Past the Point of No Return on Climate? Scientists Respond To Controversial New Study”, Olivia Rosane, EcoWatch, 13 Nov 2020, https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-study-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2648886531.html
3 “ Renewables set to become dominant force in Britain’s power mix by 2020”, Sarah George, Edie Newsroom, 26 June 2020, https://www.edie.net/ news/10/Renewables-accounted-for-record-47–of- UK-generation-in-first-quarter-of-2020/
4 “ Energy Trends – June 2020”, BEIS, https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/ system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923057/ Energy_Trends_June_2020.pdf
5 “ Confirmation that 2019 concludes warmest decade”, Met Office, 15 Jan 2020, https://www.metoffice.gov. uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2020/confirmation-that-2019-concludes-warmest-decade-on-record
6 “ Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”, Rebecca Lindsey, Climate. Gov, 14 Aug 2020, https:// www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide
7 See data trends Mar – Jul 2020 in Worldometers, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ country/uk/
8 “ Climate & Ecological Emergency Executive – draft plan”, private discussions held Feb 2021 with Anusha Shah Director Resilient Cities at Arcadis and visiting professor at King’s College London.